(New York, NY) — Following the devastating death of prominent Iranian poet, filmmaker, free expression advocate, and 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write honoree Baktash Abtin in state custody from COVID-19 contracted at Tehran’s Evin prison after he was denied timely and robust medical care in the crucial early stages of infection from the virus, PEN America, joined by PEN Sydney and PEN Melbourne, released the following joint message of solidarity. The below message was written in Farsi to be read at Abtin’s funeral, held on January 9, but Abtin’s colleagues, members of the Iranian Writers’ Association, were not able to do so due to security and other logistical arrangements during the ceremony. We share it here, in translation:

“The respected family of Baktash Abtin
The respected members of Iranian Writers’ Association 
The respected attendees 

Please accept our sincere condolences. Baktash in fact was killed due to the neglect of the authorities. The regime directly is responsible for his death. 

To the family of Baktash, you lost a dear member of your family; the Iranian Writers’ Association (IWA) and we have lost a dear and committed colleague. Baktash’s death is a great loss for those who fight for freedom in general and freedom of expression particularly. He fought against censorship, but the regime took him away via physical censorship. Despite this, his powerful presence will remain with us forever through his poems, principles, and commitments. 

Dear family of Baktash, friends, and comrades in the IWA, we stand with you from afar, and we will stay standing by you. Our solidarity is steadfast and we encourage you to stay strong, the victory is not far away. We are in bereavement with you. 

PEN America, PEN Sydney, and PEN Melbourne”

Baktash Abtin, aged 47, was serving a six-year sentence for his vocal defense of free expression in the country, demonstrated by his leadership in the Iranian Writers’ Association (IWA) and his boundless creativity and writing that challenged state censorship. He was imprisoned as part of a spurious criminal case that also targeted his fellow IWA board members novelist-journalist Keyvan Bajan and author-literary critic Reza Khandan Mahabadi. During his imprisonment, Abtin continued to speak out against injustice; authorities attempted to charge him again after he joined other people jailed in Evin prison in writing a letter warning about the spread of the coronavirus. His contraction of COVID-19 in early December was the second time he suffered from the virus—he first showed symptoms consistent with COVID-19, including pulmonary issues, in April—but authorities delayed sending him to receive adequate care and allowing him a medical furlough until his condition became truly critical. Since early December, Bajan has also shown flu-like symptoms, and Khandan Mahabadi was transferred to a hospital after showing coronavirus symptoms but is currently recovering.

“We join the global literary and human rights communities in mourning the senseless and wholly preventable death of Baktash Abtin,” said PEN America’s Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs Karin Deutsch Karlekar. “Given the track record of abject failure to contain the spread of repeated waves of COVID-19 at Evin prison and the delays in providing timely and adequate medical care to those prisoners who contract COVID-19, we have long been gravely concerned for Abtin’s safety and that of his jailed IWA colleagues—Keyvan Bajan, Reza Khandan Mahabadi, and Arash Ganji. His tragic death in custody stains the Iranian regime, whose shameful imprisonment and medical neglect resulted in his death. We must not allow Abtin’s passing at the hands of the Iranian authorities to have been in vain, and urgently repeat our demand that the Iranian government immediately release Keyvan Bajan, Reza Khandan Mahabadi, and Arash Ganji, along with others unjustly detained in Iran and who are battling COVID infections or other severe health concerns.”

Zoe Rodriguez, the co-president of PEN Sydney, added: “Abtin’s death is terrible news to all who are committed to freedom in general and freedom of expression specifically; we have lost a brave member of our international family. When PEN Sydney spoke to Baktash and Reza in April 2020, Baktash told us, ‘freedom has never been gifted to anyone on a gold-wrapped plate. We ought to pay a heavy price for it. In countries like ours, where a dictatorship is ruling, while we are fighting for freedom of expression and against censorship, to obtain our natural rights seems more difficult. In a country like Iran, death is very cheap for intellectuals, freedom-loving people, and those who fight for freedom of expression. As my friend Reza Khandan said, we are not worried to face trials, to go to prison, and to endure sufferings, because we have made up our minds. . . if they have any opportunities, they will terminate us one by one. We, with complete knowledge of the risks, will emphasize our defined obligation, which is to fight for freedom of expression and against censorship.’ We believe the regime in fact killed Baktash, we hold the regime in Iran responsible for his death, and we send our condolences to Baktash’s family and his colleagues in the IWA. He will never be forgotten.”

Abtin’s death marks an immeasurable loss for the Iranian creative and free expression communities, and his advocacy and resulting unjust imprisonment had galvanized leading figures in the global literary community in support of releasing jailed Iranian writers. PEN America honored Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi with the 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award on October 5, 2021. A few weeks later, their IWA colleague Arash Ganji joined them in Evin prison after being summoned to serve an 11-year sentence for translating a book and other purported crimes. According to PEN America’s 2020 Freedom to Write Index, Iran jailed the fourth-highest number of writers and intellectuals globally. PEN America continues to advocate on behalf of a number of individuals sentenced or imprisoned for their expression, including writers, journalists, and activists.